Aussie Spec Fic is full of larger than life characters, but one man bestrides the scene like a wine swilling, feast cooking colossus. Bon vivant, polymath, raconteur – all these words and more apply to Dirk Flinthart. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to spend time in his company knows that there is never a dull moment in the Dirk zone. But, while those who are as smart as Dirk can often be uncharitable, you would not find a more encouraging and welcoming guy. He’s also one of Australia’s most talented writers with a stellar record in producing quality work. This combination of skill and the ability to get the most out of life make Dirk the perfect man to talk about having fun with your writing.
I had dinner with Dave the other night, around at Tehani Wessely’s place here in Tas. It was pretty cool. Tehani makes a mean lasagne, and both she and David are good company. Conversation with the writing crowd is usually fun, I’ve found, and almost never boring.
Anyway, we were about halfway through the evening when David mentioned a ‘brag shelf’ — a reasonably visible bookshelf with published works by the author who owns the shelf. And… um… I don’t have one.
I’ve got lots of stories in print. I’ve got a nifty-looking Ditmar up on one of my shelves, somewhere in the Vault of Chaos I call my study. I’ve got minor awards for this and that, and lots of shortlistings and nominations, but somehow, I’ve just never really got around to a display shelf. In fact, I’m not even very good at keeping track of what I’ve printed.
Part of this is just me. I’m notoriously bad at taking compliments, and I’m not much on self-promotion. Not great for a writer in this day and age. I can do it, of course. I just don’t enjoy it.
And that’s the key, really. It’s also the key to this little piece: enjoyment. I love writing stories, but once I’ve written a piece and seen it in print, I want to move on and write the next one. Keeping trophies isn’t part of the game for me: I’m all about the next contract, the next gig, the next story.
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I figure most writers would say the same thing. I started getting paid in University, writing articles for this and that. Being paid was cool, but the point was much more about having fun. I convinced magazines to let me go to Maleny-Woodford to interview feral babes. I got myself paid to attend the National Festival of Beer. I got paid to ride around in a 4WD-converted Rolls Royce.
I made money, but more: I had a lot of fun.
Fiction is fun for me too. Even the serious stuff. When I get a really good idea, I literally get chills. I’ve been known to pull over by the roadside and stare vacantly into the middle distance, then burst into a triumphant cheer just because I’ve had that ‘click’, and seen how to create something that I like.
The stories that have worked best for me have been the ones that were the most fun. Honestly? I work at all of them, and I enjoy all of them, but its the ones with a bit of fun to the narrative line that I like best. Those Red Priest stories — yeah, I had a great time with them. There will be more.
So, what’s the point here? It’s simple. Like many Australian authors, I’ve spent the last few years working out how to crack the novel market. And like most of us, I’ve cleaned up my act, polished my prose, detailed my structures, concentrated on my Strong Female Characters, and sought ever more elegant style to my writing. I’ve had some excellent feedback, both from my peers in the game (thanks, ROR!) and from publishers. But do you see a big, fat, novel with “Flinthart” on the spine at your local bookstore?
You do not.
And frankly, that’s fairly stupid of me.
Times have changed. The world isn’t reading the way it was. Once upon a time, you needed an agent and a killer pitch and a wicked-sharp MS to catch the eye of the publishers, and even then, you had to be lucky as hell. That’s not true any more. Check the Amazon bestsellers. See how many of them have been self-published, or began life as e-books. Go ahead.
Consider Fifty Shades of Whatever. There’s a great example. Have you read any of it? I make it part of my business to read at least a little of what’s selling. (And believe me, trying to read from Twilight put a serious strain on my gorge.) Do you think Fifty Shades is a painstakingly constructed work of poetic prose, vivid characterisation and clever plotting?
No. Of course not. Let’s be honest: even most of its fans admit that it’s crap.
But lest you assume I’m cherrypicking, shall we consider conventionally published bestsellers? I had to review Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol a couple years back. Reading the bloody thing was purest agony. It’s been twenty-five years five since I skim-read Battlefield Earth by L Ron Hubbard, and loathed almost every page of it. In all those years, I’d never found a book I thought could be called worse until I hit Brown’s effort. What an unbearable pile of badly fermented hyena squeezings! And yet, the punters loved it.
Think it through. Writing a book the painstaking, artistic, peer-reviewed way takes about two years. And if I’m very, very lucky, I get more than a second glance from a publisher. Maybe I even get a contract. Maybe. But probably not. Meanwhile the people who count — the readers — are happily dumpster-diving, grooving on Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyers and a plethora of equally… errr… talented creators.
Who’s the fool here?
Well, the publishers look pretty dim, I admit. They spend most of their time racing around like beheaded chickens, trying to publish carbon copies of current bestsellers. Their hit rate for finding new stuff has always been poor, and lately, it looks even worse. But that’s okay, because they’ve worked out they can harvest from the ‘Net, and still make a pretty good profit.
And the readers? Heck, I don’t blame readers. That would be stupid. People read what they like. It’s up to people like me to figure out how to get readers to like my work.
Nope. The fool is me. Because I forgot why I started writing. I forgot that it’s supposed to be fun. I learned my craft. I polished. I criticised. I shaped and I shaded and I cut to the bone, and I produced manuscripts that took years for publishers to finish rejecting them. (Not kidding.)
Folks, I’ve seen the light. Last year, I set myself a little goal. I promised I would write a full-length novel within a four to six month timeframe, and despite the best efforts of my family, my Masters Degree supervisor, my martial arts commitments and everything else, I succeeded. I have finished that novel, and I have handed it to a small, wicked-fast publisher, and I am told that it is A Good Thing.
What did I do differently?
I had fun. I made the story fun. I made the characters fun. I took the piss here and there. I created action scenes that interested me. I threw some sex into the mix just to see if I could do it. And lo, folks: turns out the book should be coming out in the not too distant future.
No, it’s not a big publishing contract. We’re going electronic, and print-on-demand. But it will be a real book, with a real cover, and real editing, and all the good stuff. I can’t guarantee you’ll have fun reading it, of course — but I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, and I suspect if you go in expecting to come out with a big grin at the end, you won’t be disappointed.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much I’m already at work on the sequel. With three more plotted out after that, yep. Why not?
I’m not quitting the painstaking, craftsmanly stuff. I like the challenge. Making a short story really work, folding it back in on itself to create layers of meaning and metaphor — that’s another kind of fun, and I’m not backing away from it. I’m enjoying my Masters Degree studies too, including the twelve thousand-odd words of epic poem I have to write in the formal Ottava Rima style of Lord Byron’s Don Juan.
But the simple truth is that dragging my sorry arse over every individual word in an attempt to create a masterly poetic synthesis — that’s not putting me in print. It’s not giving you new stories to read. It’s taking up my time, and my concentration, and ultimately, it isn’t fun.
We can’t all be bestsellers. We can’t all write capital-ell Litratcha. Most of us found our way into the game as writers because writing was our preferred mode of self-expression. It was fun. Tragically, the Big Press model of publishing doesn’t care about fun, and it’s all to easy to forget about the enjoyment of writing in pursuit of plaudits and contracts. And yet, many of the most successful Big Press books are complete crap that really should never have been allowed to deforest all those third-world countries for paper.
You’re a writer? Excellent. But don’t lock yourself away and slave over your MS forever. Write something fun. Get it out there. Self-publish, if you must. If it’s any good, it’s got a chance of being noticed by the readers, and they’re the ones that count. And if it’s no good? Well, it was fun, right? So shrug, take another look at what people are reading, then go back and have fun all over again. Eventually you’ll get it right — and if you don’t, at least you didn’t waste your time.
Having said all that, there’s something I’d like to say in response to Jane Routley’s final question on marketing, here in this very forum. Jane pointed out that the ebook world is increasingly crowded, full of voices, and it’s very hard to be heard in all that.
That’s an excellent point. But more, it’s an opportunity waiting to be seized.
The plethora of voices in ebookery is an outcome of a lack of gatekeepers. Hardbook publishing involved effort, and lots of money, and therefore big companies got involved. They took a dim view of expenditure, so they went to great efforts to ensure the works in which they did invest had a decent chance of providing a return. In other words, they acted as gatekeepers, cutting away the worst of the dross.
There’s not much like that in self-publishing and ebookery. What is evolving is a two-tier system wherein authors launch themselves online, and big, monied companies try to make deals with the ones the readers like. But that doesn’t help the readers find new stuff, does it?
Are you a reader? Are you a decent critic? Build yourself a site on the web. Read and review, but make it clear that you will only give space to the works you find rewarding. Be consistent, thorough, and fair. Link to other reasonable sites. Make noise on places like Facebook, etc. If you’re any good at this, and you stick with it, pretty soon you’ll have new authors knocking at your door.
And that’s your opportunity. Right now, the idea of ‘review for pay’ is still thought of as unsavory. And to be fair, as practised by shady marketing companies hired to create ‘buzz’ on the Internet, or by desperate wannabe ‘authors’ spruiking their own stuff on Amazon, it’s a very poor idea. But think about the movies. Consider the influence of critics there. Ever heard of Roger Ebert?
Yeah. I figured as much. So: next question is where is the Ebert of books?
That’s your goal. Build a site. Review the stuff that you actually enjoy. Keep doing it until you start getting free reads. Keep up your standards, though. Make it clear you’ll only put up a review for a book you found enjoyable, and there’s no negotiation on that point.
Finally, when you’re getting more work than you can readily handle and people are coming to your site to check your opinions — set up a deal with the writers. Take a flat fee, or a cut of any sales spike, or any other arrangement you can think of. Make some money.
Does it sound mercenary? Who cares? You’d be doing everybody a service. I would definitely pay at least a little for access to a site that sorted interesting reads out of the vast, unwashed dross of self-published Net-nasties. Likewise, as a writer I would be prepared to pay a reasonable premium to place my works on such a site, if I was convinced that the operators of the site were really and truly keeping up a solid standard. I’d save money as a reader because I could more easily find good things to read, and I’d make money as a writer because it would be easier for readers to identify my books as being of a tasty nature.
That’s for free, folks. I’m a writer. I’ve done critic work. I could do this, too… but then I wouldn’t have time to write my own stories, and where’s the fun in that?
Dirk Flinthart is old enough to know better, but somehow that doesn’t seem to stop him. He’s been writing for most of his life, but has been published over the last twenty years in SF, fantasy, horror, and feature journalism. He holds a black belt in ju-jitsu, and he’s working towards a 2nd dan grading. He also holds a provisional black belt in Iai-do, and is currently studying for a Masters degree in English at Uni of Tas. He’s got three irritatingly bright kids underfoot, lives in Uttermost Taswegia on a mountainside with a view of the distant ocean, and is in the final stages of putting together a novel with Fablecroft Publishing. There’s more, but honestly, aren’t you bored with this stuff yet?